This much I know: Maggie O’Farrell

I wouldn’t say I always knew I’d be a writer, I have simply always written.

At first, I wrote in secret. To begin with, I thought I wanted to be a poet.

Growing up, I was a bookish and shy child and I had a terrible stammer. I think I was probably quite difficult. I was given to tantrums, to peaks and troughs of emotion. My mum says I was a nightmare.

I was born in Co Derry, not long after Bloody Sunday, but we left and moved to Wales when I was still quite young. I grew up in Wales and Scotland and then I went to University at Cambridge.

When I graduated, I travelled and saw a little bit of the world. I worked as a journalist in Hong Kong and later in London. These days, my home is in Edinburgh.

At the age of eight I got encephalitis and had to miss a year of school. I had to learn to walk again. I can’t remember who I was before I became ill, but I am sure the event affected me deeply.

I’m not very sporty but I do enjoy cycling and walking, especially walking by the sea. I was born by the sea in Coleraine.

I was working full time when I wrote my first two novels. They crept up on me. I was staying with the parents of a boyfriend when I spotted a big chunky old Macintosh computer by the door. His mother was throwing it out. I asked her if I could have it and, when she said yes, it was as if having that computer unleashed everything.

I used it to write my first book After You’d Gone.

I attended some formal writing workshops at Cambridge, and with the poet Michael Donaghy, at London’s City University. I also took some classes which led to praise for a short story that eventually became my debut.

The best advice I ever received about writing was from Michael. It’s really about redrafting and it can be applied to any creative endeavour: When you set out to create something, you put up scaffolding in order to create, and, once you have completed the work, you must remember to take the scaffolding down again.

I was very lucky to get an agent fairly early in the process, although I had to redraft my work for over a year before she agreed to take me on. Then it was turned down by five publishers before I redrafted it again. I clearly needed to apply Michael’s advice about the scaffolding.

When I had to start promoting my books by reading my work in public and making appearances and doing live interviews, it was petrifying at first.

I was never one of those kids who wanted to be on stage or to perform in any way and I’d had this awful stutter, so I found the whole business terrifying but thankfully it does get easier with time.

I’m amused by the idea that I’m a ‘full-time writer’. I feel more like a full-time mum. I have three young children. Girls of seven and four and a son of 13. I write around the edges of other things.

Some weeks I think I’ll get more time to write, then something happens. This week is an example — my son ended up going into hospital unexpectedly.

Having children changes your perspective completely.

My idea of misery is being stuck in the same place all the time.

The trait I most admire in others is calmness. I’m not very calm.

My biggest fault is my temper.

If I could change one thing in our society, I would give women the right to reproductive choice.

I have written a first draft of my next book.

I try to write at home but sometimes I like to write in cafés, although it can be very tricky to find a café without loud music.

My biggest fears are for my children. I fear for their safety with all the political upheaval and the threats posed by climate change.

So far life has taught me that the best way out is always through.

Maggie O’ Farrell’s novel This Must Be The Place was shortlisted for a 2016 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Award.


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